HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Interior Secretary Deb Haaland signed the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes water rights compact on Friday, settling a decades-long battle over thousands of individual water rights in Montana and on the Flathead Indian Reservation. The deal also created a $1.9 billion trust to settle claims and refurbish the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project in Montana.
The tribes have claims to more than 10,000 water rights beyond their reservation land. The compact offered a deal where the tribes relinquished their claims to most of the water outside of the reservation.
In exchange, the tribes will receive 211 water rights on their reservation, 10 water rights outside of the reservation and co-ownership of 58 other water rights, along with the funding.
“Our elders continually remind us to protect our water, and this day marks the beginning of the water compact implementation that will protect the water for all generations to come," Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Chairwoman Shelly Fyant said in a statement.
Montana lawmakers passed legislation approving the compact in 2015.
The agreement was initially introduced in Congress by Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester in 2016 and reintroduced in December 2019 by Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines. It passed a year later and the tribe quickly ratified it.
Under the compact, the federal government will initially provide the tribes with $90 million over a 10-year period to rebuild the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project, which was built in the 1900s. The irrigation project’s dams and canals extend throughout the Flathead Indian Reservation along with Lake and Sanders counties.
The rest of the money has yet to be appropriated.
“The Department is committed to upholding our trust responsibilities and delivering long-promised water resources to tribes, certainty to all their non-Indian neighbors, and a solid foundation for future economic development for entire communities dependent on common water resources,” Haaland said in a statement.
With the signing, “farmers, ranchers, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, and all Montana water users will have the certainty they need about the use of one of our most precious resources, water,” Montana Governor Greg Gianforte said in a statement.
The compact also transfers to the tribes the management of the National Bison Range, which is within the reservation boundaries.